What Makes the Beetle ‘Tick’?

UA researchers attempt to uncover the secrets of the segmentation clock

Elephants, humans, mice, and bugs — although very different, these animals have something in common: a segmentation clock.

Segments are repeated sections of the body found in a wide variety of animals, but they are most popularly known among the arthropods, which includes insects, centipedes, millipedes, spiders, and scorpions.

Segmentation clocks help drive the formation of segments during early development. In insects, this allows for the addition of repeated pairs of legs. Humans even have one too—our segmentation clock helps form the repeated vertebrae of our spine.

The Nagy Lab at the University of Arizona’s Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology is investigating how one kind of segmentation clock is regulated, specifically in the red flour beetle.

Hannah Quick, an undergraduate member of the Nagy Lab and an Undergraduate Biology Research Program (UBRP) participant, will be a senior in MCB this fall. Her project focuses on one component of the beetle segmentation clock: the gene even-skipped.

Picture of Hannah Quick at the laboratory bench
Hannah Quick works at the bench in Dr. Lisa Nagy’s laboratory. Photo by Sierra O’Sullivan.

“The beetle segmentation clock is made up of three genes: even-skipped, odd-skipped, and runt. These genes repeatedly cycle in expression to churn out segments in the developing embryo. You can think of it literally as a clock, where one ‘turn’ of the clock makes two segments,” Quick said.

However, it is unknown how the clock is controlled. The Nagy Lab is using genetic techniques to identify sequences that regulate even-skipped in the beetle.

The lab chose to work on even-skipped as some of regions surrounding the gene in the fruit fly are the most well-studied in molecular and evolutionary biology. They then take an evolutionary approach to compare how the regulation of this gene has changed between flies and beetles.

Numerous undergraduate students have contributed to the project. Currently, four undergraduates are working on transgenic fruit fly lines that contain portions surrounding the beetle even-skipped gene. Previously, several students also worked on molecular cloning.

“I didn’t realize that undergraduates could have such a large role in real research projects on campus. Before my time here, I thought that they were only allowed to run routine samples. Talking to other students, I realize that this is a pretty commonly held belief,” Quick explained.

UBRP allows for undergraduate students to partake in full-time, paid research positions in biology laboratories during the summer. Applications open each fall and close in early February. In addition, undergraduate students can get involved in research during the academic year by volunteering or arranging for course credit with their academic advisors.

“If there is a lab you are vaguely interested in, don’t hesitate to reach out to the professor or principal investigator. In my experience, they have been incredibly welcoming of undergrads participating in their research,” Quick said.

For now, undergraduate members of the Nagy Lab will continue their work on dissecting the beetleeven-skipped gene. Hopefully, someday soon, they will be able to say what makes the beetle ‘tick.’